The M.Night Shyamalan Hate Club…

Unless you’ve been home-schooled, you are probably aware what bullying is. We all went through it at some stage of our lives, be it in schools, kindergartens, sandpits, colleges, universities (grad schools, I’m looking at you), or at work and we all fully comprehend how hurtful it is to be somebody’s target. And if you don’t understand it because you used to be (or even worse – still are) a bully yourself, then you sir are a douchenozzle and should be ashamed of yourself.

As I understand it, most of us have some sort of experiences in that regard. After all, we can usually identify a huge discrepancies in a given population between the bullies and the bullied – there’s always this one c**t in a given population that holds ransom an entire group of people, so, if my calculations are correct, chances are that most of us hate being ridiculed or otherwise abused. Then how is it possible that all of a sudden it gets so easy to hop on the hate train and participate in a heinous act of public humiliation? Is it the herd mentality or the illusion of anonymity that makes us all complicit in collective bashing of someone, just because it is trendy to do so?

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I already glanced over the subject of the social status (or lack thereof) of M. Night Shyamalan’s – once great and promising young talent, now a pariah forever condemned by the same people who once loved him. Back in 1999 he made an astounding splash with his big budget début “The sixth sense” and there’s not a soul in the Internet who hasn’t seen it and/or doesn’t hold a strong opinion on this particular film. This revolting supernatural horror sporting a duo of Bruce Willis and a young Haley Joel Osment (who by the way hasn’t made much out of this initial splash) and the now iconic phrase ‘I see dead people’ managed to win over millions of people and garnered fantastic reviews. The producers made tonnes of money out of the deal and Shyamalan was on course to become a full-time dollar-printing machine.

And this is where everything went sideways… Even though his two follow-up features (“Unbreakable” and “Signs”, both of which I personally loved) were still critically acclaimed and in spite of fantastic box office returns, the venomous world of critics started voicing louder and louder that the supposedly great M. Night Shyamalan was a crook – a one-trick pony…  And it all went downhill from there. Now, riddle me this: where does the line between an auteur and a one-trick pony lie exactly? Well, let me help you:

Auteur – A film-maker  usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.

One-trick pony – A person or a group noteworthy for only a single achievement, skill or characteristic.

The way I see it, at the end of the day it is down to a personal preference whether to label someone an auteur or a one-trick pony and it is most likely based on either an emotional relationship with one’s work or other external factors. So, is M. Night Shyamalan a one-trick pony?

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Let’s examine, shall we? Most if not all of his films deal with supernatural themes – check. All of them have a characteristic pace, minimalistic dialogue, moments of deafening silence and related elements of style – check. All of them sport a good deal of jump scares – check. All of them have twist endings – check. Wait, hang on… “The Sixth sense” – definitely a twist there… “Unbreakable” – sure, I’ll give you that; an ‘it was me all along’ twist… “Signs” – nah, not quite a twist… “The Village” – sure, a twist… “Lady in the water” – no twist… “The Happening” – if you think that’s a twist, then you’re your problem, not mine… “The Last Airbender” – haven’t seen it, sorry… “After Earth” – no sign of a twist anywhere…

To me it looks like the ‘dreaded trademark Shyamalan twist’ only makes an appearance in three of his films. But the critics will actually go out of their ways to point out he’s known for the abundant twist endings to his movies every time they get a chance – which is false. Unless, of course, the twist in “The sixth sense” has done you in so much that you can’t get over yourself anymore. And what’s wrong with twist endings anyway? One in four films that make it to the screen sports some sort of a twist (don’t have the numbers, don’t quote me on that) and we somehow unilaterally decided that it’s the Shyamalan’s twists that we are supposed to hate. Is it because none of the remaining two twist endings were anywhere near the level of the first one? Still good twists though… Maybe we should ostracise Steve Soderbergh for his twist endings as well, or David Fincher, or Ang Lee, or even better – Sir Alfred Hitchcock? Is it a sin to take after the great master in more than one regard? Is it not tactful any longer? Especially that in his early films Shyamalan made it glaringly obvious where his inspirations were with Hitchcockian plot devices and even with making brief cameos in his films.

Practice your hate all you want, but we cannot deny him the fact nearly all of his films are suspenseful and scary, but somehow we’ve fallen prey to the merciless snake-pit of a world of film critics, who decided M. Night Shyamalan was not going to be part of the club any longer and whatever he does, the reviews he’d rake in can only get progressively worse. Interestingly, despite critical backlash, the audience has not quite agreed with what the professionals had to say…

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But guess what? The reviews aren’t the be-all-end-all in here – it’s the moviegoers who make the final call and even with callous reviews his last films have garnered – all of them made a profit. Even “The Last Airbender” that ‘won’ 5 Razzies turned out to make money after all. Could it be, because it was a kids’ movie? We can laugh all we want, but with the money this guy has made over the last 14 years, he could technically afford to make 10 more films budgeted at $150M, have no-one see them and still be in credit.

Therefore, I think it’s high time somebody put a stop to this madness. You’ve had your go (hell, even I said some hateful things about the guy in the past), but now it’s time to let him go about his day. You took his lunch money and gave him a wedgie – let him be and ask yourself a question, if per chance you claim to have hated Shyamalan’s movies because others told you to. If so, then make up your own mind instead. There’s no shame in saying you like Shyamalan’s films – I know I do. Even “The Happening”, which wasn’t exactly great, and “After Earth” that apart from being a substandard Sci-Fi, was in actuality quite nice when Shyamalan’s style could surface.

As it stands, the hate club has grown strong enough that Shyamalan’s name is absent from all the posters and trailers for his newest film and it should be a clear sign that the things have gone too far. He’s not a leper, y’know? He just chose to have a style and stuck with it, which doesn’t make him a one-trick pony – it makes him more of an auteur, I believe. If you hate abstract art, you wouldn’t take a day off work only to go and visit a gallery of modern art, now would you? Unless you’re a bit perverted and enjoy pain, but that’s not my problem…

Directors are people too and this one has had enough, don’t you agree? Maybe next time we should let him have his name on a poster for a change…

“After Earth” – M. Night Shyamalan’s last ditch effort

Summer turns out not to be the most friendly time of the year – especially when you are a film. The competition is fierce and all kinds of high-budget productions roam the screens in search for box office revenue. Therefore, if you are not a superhero flick or a high-profile Sci-Fi (i.e. Star Trek Into Darkness), you’re bound to be fighting an uphill battle to break even. The struggle is even harder if your director seems to be cursed. Therefore, I think ‘mixed feelings’ is the most polite way I could describe my state of mind when I was about to watch “After Earth” this afternoon.

Normally, if somebody told me that a name like Will Smith was just attached to the upcoming summer Sci-Fi flick, I’d be in all kinds of heaven. Let’s face it – his name is almost a brand at this point with titles like “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “I, Robot”, “MiB” virtually guaranteeing high octane entertainment and phenomenal box office turnover. Normally… but “After Earth” was not supposed to be normal, not by a long shot… Because this film was being created by none other than M. Night Shyamalan himself – and once you mention his name in public, everybody starts staring at you, as if you just farted in a church or something. I don’t intend to digress too much here, because I already have it planned for a different occasion, but one thing was clear the minute I learned Shyamalan was helming this upcoming Sci-Fi film with Will Smith in it – it was going to be something else entirely. And I wasn’t far off in the end, but not the way I anticipated.

There are a bunch of little things that make up the bulk of “After Earth”, but the general concept can be summarized in the following way: at some point in the future, the mankind has finally succeeded in destroying the planet. Therefore, humans had to evacuate Earth and move their civilization somewhere else – to a planet called Nova Prime, which is of course capable of supporting life. In order to organize the move and later to protect the people from various threats, an organisation called The Ranger Corps was brought to life where the finest warriors could play their part in keeping the mankind safe.

Fast forward one thousand years; Nova Prime settlements have been troubled by an alien race that uses monsters that sense fear to hunt down humans, and only thanks to General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) the Rangers were able to turn the tide of the war. It turns out that Cypher learned how to dismiss fear entirely thus making himself completely invisible to Ursas (the fear-sensing monsters). Once he started teaching other rangers how to master his skill, everything was more or less fine again and Cypher returned home a hero.

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Now, back at home his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying desperately to become a ranger himself in order to prove his worth to the very distant father – and he fails, not because he lacks skill, but he has problems following orders and keeping in line. Understandably, Cypher being the military-type strict type of father is utterly disappointed in his son and the gap between the two keeps widening. Only because Kitai’s mom convinces Cypher to cut the kid some slack, he decides to take him on what is supposed to be his last mission before retiring – a perfect opportunity for the two to have some time to bond. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan and mid-voyage their spaceship gets badly damaged by an asteroid and crashes on Earth (quite conveniently; it is somehow explained in the dialogue, but I can’t recall the details now). The only problem is that Earth after a thousand years without humans is a dangerous place to live in – completely taken over by blood-thirsty animals that look at people the way people look at bacon.

It then turns out that Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors of the crash (with Cypher being badly injured) and the only way for them to contact their compatriots is to find a distress beacon that crashed somewhere else – a perfect opportunity for young Kitai to prove to his father once and for all that he could be a Ranger. In order to achieve that, however, Kitai will have to face all kinds of deadly animals, rapidly changing weather and an Ursa that had their ship had carried before it crashed.

Now that I have seen this film I can honestly say that M. Night Shyamalan felt a bit out of his depth developing a high-concept science fiction film and, as a result, “After Earth” is a very chaotic and uneven experience. Note here that I am specifically trying to use neutral wording in order to avoid jumping on the hate train. I realize it would have been much easier for me to go on a rant here and join the crowd, but I feel it would be unfair on my part, because – all things considered – I quite liked the film with all its flaws and shortcomings. Correction: not so much liked it, but I didn’t dislike it, if that makes any sense.

I believe it is only logical to start with the good bits. First of all, I think the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith will remain one of the strongest points of the film in general. For one thing, they naturally have some good chemistry going and most of the scenes with both of them in the room have this weird tension – in a good way. However, we don’t get to see those too much in the film, as the bulk of “After Earth” is simply Jaden running around alone in the jungle with his father watching his every step from the safety of the wreckage. Jaden on his own acts nowhere near as good as when he is with his dad and no amount of Will Smith’s solid acting could possibly make up for that fact.

The contraptions used by the characters are also nice additions to the film. From the biologically inspired design of the spaceship with its bone-like skeleton, squishy buttons and tissue-like membranes for doors, through the mutating suit worn by Kitai, all the way up to the shape-shifting Ranger weapon – all the props in the film are designed very interestingly. Also, the CG modelling of the Ursa was quite clever, although the concept alone of a creature that finds its prey by tracking its fear was a tad underdeveloped.

 

Well, that’s all, folks… I like the premise of the film as well and I secretly hoped it would trump the ghastly “Oblivion”, but “After Earth” didn’t quite deliver. While the concept alone was more or less OK and maybe I could buy it, in the end the film offered a bit too much bulls**t to swallow in one go. I really dug the political commentary of how the planet will force us out and make sure we don’t come back, but I feel the script (co-written by Shyamalan again) would have been better if it was developed by someone experienced in designing universes from the foundations up, so that it would be actually believable and not full of gaping holes. Even though most of Shyamalan’s films involve supernatural elements, he clearly is not cut out for a job of that calibre. As much as I like the guy and understand where he’s coming from, “After Earth” ended up smothering him completely. When it comes to twists and turns and putting the characters in peril, that’s all fine and, even though it is rather expected for the characters to come out alive, he had me sitting at the edge of my seat quite a few times.

Nonetheless, a good sci-fi needs a bit more than that. While it was perfectly OK for “The Sixth Sense” to concentrate on only two characters and more importantly on fooling the viewers, “After Earth” needed a completely different approach – one that it never got. It almost looked, as though Shyamalan was forced to direct it without being able to think it through, because neither the character dynamic is established well enough to drive the film, nor the sci-fi aspect is compelling enough to be believable. A good sci-fi either requires a fully established mythos that breathes life into the world, or it needs to be completely cut off and self-contained – with no middle ground. The middle ground is where the mediocre sci-fi films go to die. Of course, it is more than welcome to expand on the cut-off variation and introduce the world in sequels or in lateral plot points, but unfortunately “After Earth” cannot be successfully assigned to any of these categories. In the end, Shyamalan tried to cook two dishes at once and he burned them both.

And I haven’t even touched on the leaps in logic and poor understanding of science that served as foundation for the entire universe in the film. I think “After Earth” would have benefited from a bit more science and less fiction. Maybe it takes a mere thousand years for the earth to go completely green again with oxygen levels being weirdly too low for humans to breath comfortably! Photosynthesis much? Also, how can anything evolve to kill humans if the humans are not around any more? It’s impossible by definition and a thousand years is nowhere near enough for anything to evolve into anything else. Luckily, the animals in the movie look mostly normal… Clearly, nobody over there knew how to tackle Sci-Fi properly. Since we live in the 21st century, we require our Sci-Fi to be properly done and fancy costumes and spaceships don’t cut it any longer.

I dare say that “After Earth” was most probably an ‘all or nothing’ move from M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the Smith family who produced the picture kept pushing the studio to film their project and Shyamalan’s name was attached to it, because no-one else would do it… I don’t know, but the entire thing smells fishy to me. I mean, it is not even a full-blown Shyamalan movie, but it’s truncated surrogate and I can only explain it by thinking that the producers had more to say about what goes in the movie than the director would have liked. Therefore, I think it’s unfair to flog poor Shyamalan any longer, because it might not have been his fault entirely for what “After Earth” ended up being. Love it or hate it, but this guy has his style of story-telling and in here I could barely see it, as if somebody explicitly told him not to do what he knows best…

In short, “After Earth” looks like a collection of clichés and well-worn ideas slapped together for the benefit of Will Smith and his son, dressed in poorly engineered universe and thrown into the hands of M. Night Shyamalan for him to make something coherent of it. A good artist can make music using anything for an instrument, but it won’t be a symphony… Don’t get me wrong, there are some good moments in the film and once the ball is rolling, the story develops some suspense (and this is what Shyamalan really knows how to do), but Sci-Fi needs more than that. Still, it was better than “Oblivion”…

Shortcake #13 – “Concrete”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be granted one wish, a wish so powerful that regardless of what you think of, it would come true? Of course you have… Everybody has… When they were little, or just immature…

 

But seriously, imagine that somewhere out there there’s a box that opens only once every hundred years and in it you’ll find whatever you just wished for. And this is what “Concrete” is all about – a guy who is about to make his wish, but is brutally interrupted by a nosy cleaning lady. I don’t know about you, but I had a good laugh watching it. It’s nice and short, very compact even. The film in itself is very professionally shot, but that doesn’t really matter because the whole 6 minutes you’ll be thinking of what is in the box (every time I write or say the phrase ‘what’s in the box’, I say it in my head in Brad Pitt’s voice…). Because, of course, the wish-granting box is most likely a kind of a scumbag; you don’t really have to make a wish to get it to work, you need to think of something… concrete…

“Concrete” is actually not a stand-alone picture (well, it is per se), but a part of “Imagination” series and I will make sure to go through them all. Anyway, before I did, I just wanted to write a couple of words about “Concrete” , because it was just so good. And also because the whole time I kept thinking about a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man…

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In summary, I have to tip my hat to Daniel Benmayor who directed this little film, because it just made my morning and hopefully the whole day. Well done, sir!

“The Purge” – a hipster home invasion flick…

Now that a week has passed with me not writing anything at all, I think it is high time I got back in stride. It turns out that computers don’t like me at all lately and my laptop needed to be fixed again (or should I say, should have been fixed in the first place), so I spent the last two weeks like an animal – without the internet and everything. Well, not exactly, because I still have my tablet, but trying to blog on a touchscreen is a recipe for a violent outburst of rage. Now that my laptop had most of its insides removed and replaced and I got it up and running again, I can go back to what I like doing. I can’t promise high frequency output yet, because I’m in the middle of moving house, but I’ll do what I can.

It would also appear that my unfortunate impediment in blogging capability coincided with a temporary draught in decent films hitting the screens. Correction: ‘decent’ might be a bit too generous of a term; it’s summer after all and good films remain in hiding whilst superheroes and the like roam the screens. It got to a point that last weekend there was nothing playing in the cinemas that I actually wanted to watch. Well, had I had a bit more time during the week, I would have caught up with ”Mud” playing in QFT (my local art-house cinema), but when I actually managed to free up some time, it was already gone. Oh well… There’s always Blu Ray… Still I ended up cinema-starved for nearly two weeks, because I’m not going to see “The Hangover Part 3” or “Fast and Furious 6”. I only liked the first “Hangover” and I could barely stand the first two “Fast and Furious” instalments so I decided to wait it out.

Among the films that popped up this weekend I noticed “The Purge” and I recalled reading a little bit about it and being rather surprised the marketing campaign for it was virtually inexistent. Mainly because I thought I could use a break from Sci-Fi and superhero flicks, I figured – what the hell.

I have always had a special place in my heart for horror films. Well, I had three – for horror, Sci-Fi and action films, because this particular trio of genres played a crucial role in moulding me into what I am today. And good horrors are hard to come by lately only with “Evil Dead” living up to my standard, “Mama” being sort of OK and “Dark Skies” disappointing me quite a lot. Therefore, I was quite happy to see “The Purge”.

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Right, so the film can be described in two ways: in a quick way, or with more waffle, and I’ll start with the latter. “The Purge” is an excerpt from a dystopian universe where the US has been reborn as a nation where there’s little to no crime, everyone is happy, the streets are made of chocolate, unicorns run freely in the wild and little angels bring flowers to children every morning. Well, maybe that’s a bit too far-fetched, but the point is that America is the happiest place on Earth, because once every year for 12 hours the big brother turns a blind eye on everything. That’s right – every year on the night of the 21st of March the law is not in place and any criminal activity, up to and including murder, is perfectly legal and it constitutes the annual purge. This way apparently the society cleanses itself by releasing the rage and hatred bottled up inside by killing strangers, settling debts or just feeding their carnivorous lusts. And little do you know – it works. Those who don’t want to participate in the purge and can afford sophisticated provisions spend the night inside their heavily fortified houses, while the others (the poor) do what they can to stay alive, when the willing to purge patrol the streets with guns and machetes, or what have you. And here we are – in a house of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) – a successful businessman who made a fortune manufacturing and selling home security systems for the annual purges as James, his wife (Lena Headey) and children become targets of a bunch of masked psychotic strangers led by a Joker lookalike (Rhys Wakefield) after they make a terrible mistake of harbouring a homeless person (Edwin Hodge), who was clearly trying to flee the murderous crowd.

And that’s the long synopsis. The shorter one reads as follows: it’s a home invasion flick about a family that needs to face masked men hell-bent on hacking them to bits with axes and machetes. And it all takes place in a setting where they can’t just call the police.

Now, home invasion films should in theory work regardless of the setting, because of all the horrors one would be able to imagine, a scenario where a family is targeted by psychos (nothing supernatural, just regular deviants) is a possibility for all of us. And that’s what makes it so scary. Normally, for a film like that to make sense (“When a stranger calls”, “Strangers”) the plot requires some sort of a device to make you believe these people are stranded and have to fend for themselves, i.e. the phone lines are off due to a storm, the house is really secluded or something to that effect. “The Purge” goes a step further to invent an entire universe to serve that purpose and I wasn’t quite convinced it was necessary. Surely, we could try and draw parallels to our own world and make it look like this film is trying to comment on the divide between the rich and the poor, but it’s all superficial. At the end of the day, “The purge” is just a thriller and once it’s trying to be something more than that, it looks fake.

 

I have no problems with the execution of the film, because the acting and the technical side of things are rather OK (although I would point out that waddling around the house in the dark with a flash-light doesn’t help you see better, but helps the killer see you better). Where the film suffers the most is its premise. It almost looks like the entire idea for “The purge” originated in a pub over a couple of pints, as though a couple of guys were pondering the idea of being able to kill someone without any consequences. The idea needed some more meat, so they layered it onto a world (in near future of course, but I think it could have just as well been skipped) where the government sanctions deviant behaviour once a year.’ In for a penny in for a pound’ and so we are now presented with a fully working world with companies that make money off of the purge, with the socio-economic repercussions of said purge that suggest that letting the country eliminate the poor and defenceless, the homeless, the jobless, all contribute to the society. Surely, if you eliminate the jobless, you will artificially deflate the unemployment rate, so the film makers accounted for all that with the commentaries from ‘scientists’ we can see here and there trying to sprinkle some long words on the subject. And at the end, we are presented with a huge layered cake with chocolate fountains, raisins, nuts, strawberries and everything, when all we wanted was a cupcake.

“The purge” really looks like a lot of work to achieve so little, because the film makers (with James DeMonaco helming the project; not very experienced as a director) made up a world so bullet-proof that they needed the characters to go out of their ways and do dumb things to bring the danger upon themselves. And that pretty much sums it all up – “The Purge” is one gargantuan case of overkill. When you make up a whole world to place a home invasion story in it – you’re doing it wrong and you clearly have some unresolved issues. I don’t know, maybe DeMonaco really wanted to make fantasy films that actually require that level of thought in designing a universe, but here it’s simply secondary to everything else. Moreover, it looks as if the film makers were more concerned with the external setting for the story and they forgot to get the villain right, or make the pacing consistent (with major twists scattered thoughtlessly around the picture), and most of all they really required a string of terribly stupid events to get the action rolling.

Fortunately enough, “The purge” may have lasted for 12 hours, but only 85 minutes in real time, so it was over before I could get seriously fed up with it. Don’t get me wrong – I kind of enjoyed it – but if you take the whole fancy dressing away – it was a sloppy home invasion flick with ambitions to be something more.